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



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Henry “took an active and independent role in enlisting support and organising the debate” surrounding his marriage.169 He assembled a team of theological experts and placed Wolsey at the helm of the whole endeavor, to “study the scriptures for him, bolster his position and garner the support of the universities of Europe.”170 The king and his council were met with obstacles from the outset. Again European politics deeply affected English affairs. Henry’s chief opposition and Catherine’s greatest champion was her nephew, Charles V, who was by November 1528 “much displeased with The King” and would be “more so if the divorce proceeded.”171 As previously mentioned, Charles commanded vast lands and immense power on the continent, even in Rome. Pope Clement VII wavered in granting Henry his divorce for fear of offending the Emperor. By this time, the Catholic Church was in full crisis mode as the Reformation inflamed Europe. Rome needed every ally it could find, particularly in the Holy Roman Empire where the schism had originated. Naturally, Charles’ support of Rome was of utmost importance to the Pope. The Holy See simply could not risk angering such an essential and powerful ally. Charles was not only invested in the state of Henry’s marriage due to family loyalty, he had also been engaged to Mary Tudor since 1522 and very much wanted to protect her royal interests. Putting aside her mother and demoting her as illegitimate would sharply diminish the prestige of an English marriage.

Calculating public relations man that he was, Henry soon recognized the need for a systematic campaign not only to bring Rome on board, but also to educate the English public, both literate and illiterate, of the justice of his cause. From the outset, he followed a coherent policy: first, attacking the legitimacy of the papal bull that had allowed his marriage in 1509, and then communicating the justice and necessity of his own cause.172 In defending his divorce and communicating his divine right to end his marriage, Henry returned to two of his first loves: the printed word and art. Here Sharpe suggests Henry used public relations most brilliantly to garner support for his divorce and claims for Supreme Headship of the Church of England. He fervently clung to scripture in defending his authority in these matters, particularly in the divorce. In justifying his aims here, Henry drew upon the new persona he had recently created for himself as a most Christian king. His argument for setting Catherine aside was based on the ultimate authority: the Word of God Himself. The king cited two verses in Leviticus, which cautioned that it was a sin for a man to marry his brother’s wife and declared that the union would be childless.173 Henry had married Catherine by virtue of a papal dispensation due to her first marriage to his brother Arthur, which Catherine swore to her dying breath had gone unconsummated, making it one of the great mysteries of history. Still, in Henry’s mind his marriage was divinely unlawful, outside of the realm of even a pope’s dispensation. More conveniently, this reality justified the stillbirths, miscarriages, and most of all, the lack of a son. This would have been a sound argument were it not for the fact that Henry was married to perhaps the most pious queen in Christendom. Catherine quickly retorted with Deuteronomy 25:5 which instructs a man to marry and care for his brother’s wife if his brother dies without male issue, placing the royal couple at a firm impasse. The king had “laid his hand on a crucial weapon” in the holy word. Before long he had “talked, thought, and read himself into a faith of the justice of his cause so firm that it would tolerate no counter-argument and no opposition” and more importantly “it was not only his right to throw aside his alleged wife, but his duty--to himself, to Catherine, to his people, to God.”174 Thus the persona of the Lord’s Anointed Lieutenant was born.


“Where the Word of a King is there is power.”
“In the beginning was the Word,” reads the opening line of the Gospel of John, a simple phrase that defines God’s authority and omniscience. Here scripture figures divine authority as logos.175 “Like God’s Word, the word of a king created, made and unmade, determined and judged; the royal word was a sacred bond.”176 The kings of England had subscribed to this notion of divine right to rule since 1413, as indicated by the royal motto Dieu et mon droit. Royal authority in early modern England was synonymous with acts of speaking and writing, particularly for a monarch like Henry. A major component of the power of Henry’s word came in its timing. The printing press had revolutionized society on the eve of Henry’s divorce crisis. It made royal authority more textual and literal in its power as the king’s words could now be held in the hand and read hundreds of miles away from his person. The printed word expanded royal authority, making “proclamations and declarations indispensable media of royal authority and royal representations.”177 From the outset of his reign Henry recognized and championed the power of the written word and was uncommonly skilled in deploying “publication as a medium of sovereign utterance.”178 The books he read and the knowledge he drew from them had formed the basis of his sense of kingship. Inventory records of his effects demonstrate a massive library of hundreds of texts, including the Bible, scriptural commentaries, works of ancient philosophy and the new learning of humanism, and more importantly, works on royal and ecclesiastical authority that he almost certainly consulted during his quest for divorce. Indeed, it would be the works that Boleyn shared with him by reformist scholars that influenced Henry to finally break with the authority of Rome.179 With the advent of his divorce Henry’s reliance on books deepened acutely. As the conflict fueled rumor and outrage at home and abroad, Henry quickly realized the need to control the royal word, and by extension, his own authority. There is not much difference from modern politicians’ use of speechwriters and publicists to communicate and entice audience buy-in to their ideals and campaigns.

Henry employed his own rudimentary version of these press aides, communicating his position through royal letters, speeches and oratory, royal proclamations (especially during the debate over the Supremacy), sermons, and the writings of others in defense of his motives. The authority in the royal letters in defense of Henry’s divorce lay in that they “functioned sometimes simultaneously, as command, admonition, licence, grant, gift and intimate gesture,” often “intimating violence and love” they were a vital performance of Henry's rule.180 In a letter to the Pope in 1528, Henry combined a pressing of his suit “as urgent as it is upright” with the intimate promise of eternal support in the voice of a “suppliant” who did “strenuously implore...the favor of the Apostic See,” in “conceding our just and sacred cause.”181 In the arena of diplomacy, Henry’s letters could be likened to the displays of strength and power the king employed at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

As a student of humanism Henry was well trained in the skill of oratory and could and did speak well. However, tradition in early modern England often dictated that others speak on behalf of the king, much like modern speechwriters and press secretaries. Thomas More acted as the king’s unofficial orator from the time he was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1529 to his resignation in 1532. This was especially true in parliament. In 1530, More presented the king to his audience as the “shepherd, ruler and governor of his realm,” intimating the king’s unrivaled authority within his kingdom and over his “flock.” All the while, More praised Henry as a “most faithful, virtuous, and most erudite prince.” James Warner even suggests that More’s appointment to lord chancellor was partly to bolster Henry’s reputation as eager and open to hear the interpretations of wise counsel as More was a well-known champion of Rome.182

More was not the king’s only mouthpiece. When England and France jointly declared war on Spain in 1528, the king ordered Wolsey to summon Justices of the Peace and others to Star Chamber to defend Henry’s decision to engage which he urged his audience to report back to their counties and localities.183 When the king himself did speak, it was sparingly and on great occasions. Henry ordered all of his speeches to be fully reported in the chronicle of the reign that Edward Hall was commissioned to write. He delivered a personal speech at the disastrous papal legate court at Blackfriars in 1529 airing his “troubled...spirits” that so distracted him that he could “scantly study anything which should be profitable for my realm and people.”184 Again he masterfully appealed to anxieties surrounding the succession in a passionate speech at Bridewell before his nobles. During this address, he recalled the civil wars of the generation before when “mischief and manslaughter continue[d] in this realm between York and Lancaster” by which “the realm was like to be destroyed.”185 Henry claimed that this was the only reason, not a dislike for the queen or the desire for another mistress, that he even broached the subject of a divorce. Following his remarks, he ordered his auditors to “declare to our subjects” this mindset and intent “according to our true meaning.”186 This connection of the survival of the realm to the divorce was a powerful argument in his favor.

While letters, speeches and other forms of publication were invaluable to Henry’s cause, especially since the advent of the printing press and increasing literacy rates, for the majority of the king’s subjects “the royal word was experienced, heard, read and seen” in the form of proclamations nailed on doors, read aloud by the sheriff or circulated in village ale houses.187 In September 1530 and June 1535 Henry issued proclamations first restricting and then abolishing papal authority in England.188 In a July 1535 commission, Henry’s subjects were again reminded of the offense of praemunire and forced to acknowledge Queen Catherine as Dowager Princess as she was summarily stripped of royal style.189 These early royal press releases were a testament to the skill of Tudor branding, for when subjects saw the royal seal or name of the king’s printer on a document “they would have understood that the text was doing official service: stating the king’s views, representing the king as he wanted others to see him.”190 In these documents Henry again uses the sophisticated negotiation of authority between himself and his subjects. Royal proclamations contained not only the sovereign's decree, but also a “rationalization” or justification of the order to “ensure broad popular acceptance” thus incorporating “both the assertion of royal authority and argument for royal authority.”191 This is not to suggest that these proclamations did not inspire fear and obedience through excessive threatening of the king’s grave displeasure and a myriad of other punishments ranging from forfeiture to “fire and sword.”192 Indeed, proclamations combined “threats of harsh punishments” with “language of grace and mercy” so that Henry represented himself as “like God, a king of both dreadful justice and mercy.”193 Much like the word of God, men benefitted from reading and obeying the royal word in order avoid eternal damnation, as well as rather uncomfortable physical circumstances.

Sermons delivered by Henry’s priests and bishops also served as a powerful tactic in communicating his cause to the people. In Tudor times in particular, the sermon was both “the voice of the king and government as well as that of the preacher.”194 This use of piety as “the mouthpiece of the administration” is exemplified in the prolific Paul’s Cross sermons delivered for more than 100 years in the courtyard of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.195 This site, “a platform for [Henry’s] regime….crucial in shaping English opinion, in London and beyond,” was often the epicenter of oratorical warfare between the opposing sides of the king’s Great Matter and the Supremacy, with theological heavyweights backing their chosen bishop to preach for or against a certain cause.196 On this site where royal proclamations were often read, the king saw to it that sermons endorsing whatever policy he was pushing at the moment were preached to large and attentive crowds. The shift in religious politics as Henry took on Rome saw the crown seeking to take increasing control over this pulpit. When news of Henry’s divorce became public, pulpit wars broke out across England with Paul’s Cross as the epicenter. In March 1532, Henry had someone arrested for preaching against the divorce in “the great church,” a great matter when considering “the capacity of the Crown to put chosen men into the Paul’s Cross pulpit on special occasions.”197 Contemporary reports suggest homilies prohibiting the marriage of a brother’s widow,198 against the papacy199 and in favor of the royal supremacy200 all took place here. It was also here that sermons were preached denouncing Elizabeth Barton, the Maid of Kent, and one of the greatest domestic opponents of the divorce. Henry and Boleyn’s secret marriage was also announced at St. Paul’s to disgruntled crowds on Easter Sunday 1533. Henry was livid at this reaction, berating the Lord Mayor and demanding that the crowd and the pulpit be fully under control in future.201 Once again using the power of the royal letter, the king sought to justify the Supremacy (passed in 1534) in a June 1535 piece to his bishops instructing them to arrange sermons “against the usurped authority of the bishop of Rome [the Pope].”202 These sermons “presented and justified royal actions and programmes in the language of scripture and providence”203 and most importantly, reminded subjects of the obligation to obey their ruler.

Nowhere was Henry’s campaign for justification more fiercely fought than in the printed word. Virginia Murphy describes the king’s “polemic campaign” to publish a succession of “the king’s books” or treatises written by members of his theological circle or by Henry himself in defense of his divorce, as the backbone of his six-year-long endeavor. Henry actively commissioned these treatises, “supervised their preparation and contributed to their composition.”204 These typically opened with an address justifying his divorce and then focused on the succession and appealed to fears about the lack of male issue. This was a stroke of brilliance really, as modern public relations also posits cultivating an emotional culture that its target audience must buy into. The first of these treatises was produced in summer 1527 as a debate between Robert Wakefield and Catherine’s soon-to-be ally Bishop John Fisher. In it Wakefield wrote, “in the name of the king himself” that Henry had been much troubled about the validity of his marriage and upon examining holy scripture, settled upon two verses which justified his anxieties. Thus, in consideration of his salvation, peace of mind, and security of his realm, he would put the matter to the decision of more learned men than he for a final determination. Centering on the final lines of Leviticus 20:21 which the Latin text of the Vulgate translated as “they shall have no children,” Henry instead argued that the more authoritative Hebrew translation read, “they shall have no sons,” thus negating any counter argument for the existence of Princess Mary. “Leviticus was thus cleverly made to fit Henry’s situation exactly.”205 Furthermore, as this instruction came from the Word of God himself, it was a divine law and only God, not even the pope, could dispense from it.

Next the king presented a book “containing the reasons and causes moving the mind of his majesty” to a gathering of bishops and others skilled in divine law. This same book, by commission of the king, was presented to Pope Clement and Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci in March 1528. Another copy was also given to Cardinal Campeggio who was soon appointed as Wolsey’s co-judge in hearing the king’s case at Blackfriars. This work was more moderate than its predecessor in 1527. It opened with the king’s request for a ruling on the matter, followed by a collection of scholarly opinions and instead of outright denying all authority of popes, it questioned whether Julius II could have properly dispensed such a situation as Catherine having married Henry’s brother. By 1529, the king’s “spiritual learned council”206 had produced yet another official work, Henricus Octavus, which officially outlined the king’s suit and was presented at the papal legate of Blackfriars where the king hoped the matter of the divorce would be settled on English soil. This same council was instrumental in securing the votes of university scholars when in 1530, Henry threw out Rome as a determinant and turned to the learned of Europe for a ruling. Edward Foxe and Stephen Gardiner traveled to Oxford and Cambridge to present the king’s cause to its faculty.

In 1531, Henry’s campaign turned for the first time to the printing press. The king’s printer, Thomas Berthelet, first published Determinations of the Universities, which presented the favorable findings of the king’s cause, gathered by the king’s agents in 1530, from seven international universities.207 This work discreetly did not mention the king’s matter in any direct way. Instead it reported first, that both natural and divine law prohibited the marriage of a man to his brother's wife and secondly, that the pope had no authority, therefore, to dispense such marriages. This work served as a support of the findings of English universities like Oxford and Cambridge who also weighed in on the matter. Determinations “is the first of the king’s books to imply, perhaps as a means of exerting pressure on the pope, that the government was considering taking practical steps in England to achieve the divorce.”208 The work suggested that “a Christian should not obey a pope who commanded him, contrary to divine and natural law, to marry or remain wed to a woman already related by blood or marriage.”209 Furthermore, the work argued that bishops should not allow persons involved in such marriages to stay in them, citing several examples of bishops who had defied the pope in granting dispensations for such marriages.210 This was a subtle call for bishops to rule in the king’s favor by suggesting that if the pope would not act justly, it was their duty to intervene. The work also called for individual Christians to stand against the pope’s threats of excommunication if they felt they had married against divine law, outlining the duty of a Christian and “his private conscience.”211 More than anything else, the publication of this work suggests that by late 1530 Henry was nearly decided on taking more independent action from Rome to achieve his aims.

When it became clear that Rome was not the solution to Henry’s troubles, he ordered the publishing of A Glass of the Truthe by the royal printer as a last ditch effort “to persuade the pope, the learned of Christendom and his own subjects that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was unlawful and invalid.”212 Murphy describes this work as “the crossroads” between the two controversies of the Supremacy and divorce when it was published in 1532,213 just a year before Henry’s definitive break with the Church of Rome. The work expounded on arguments made in Determinations and opened with an address to “the gentle readers and sincere lovers of the truth”214 outlining “the most plain truth of our loving and most noble prince’s cause.”215 Glass is set up as a conversation between a lawyer and a priest who agree with one another completely on the validity of the king’s cause. This subliminal set up masterfully appeals to English xenophobia and the unity between a monarch and his subjects by intimating an “us against them” mentality, and not of temporal versus spiritual, but rather “between English patriots and hostile foreign powers such as the See of Rome.”216 It also challenges the jurisdiction of the king’s case, which had been moved to Rome following Catherine’s ingenious appeal to do so at Blackfriars. An incensed Henry himself had been summoned to Rome in 1529. Many scholars suggest that as early as this point, the king had begun to ponder other solutions for his woes. In arguing that jurisdiction in Henry’s case belonged to English bishops and not Rome (building on arguments made in Determinations), Glass introduced the essential new policy that ultimately secured the king his divorce. These political overtures were expedited by the fact that Boleyn was pregnant by late 1532, forcing Henry to take decisive action in early 1533 when the two were secretly wed to ensure the unborn child was seen as legitimate. By May 1533, English Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer officially annulled the king’s marriage to Catherine. Henry had successfully convinced those who mattered anyway, that his marriage was indeed illegitimate. He was supported by divine law which trumped any dispensation from Rome and which was evidenced in his lack of a male child. Now that his “great matter” had at long last been settled, Henry’s government turned its attention to the next of the king’s great campaigns: defending the break with Rome and the Royal Supremacy.

The divorce crisis and Henry’s bid for Supremacy ran parallel. As Scarisbrick suggests, had there been no quest for divorce, the king would likely have not taken issue with Rome. Henry’s hostility towards Rome had been slow burning and had taken time to develop into outright denial of papal authority in England. This progression is best seen in the treatises and works he published over the six years of his divorce campaign. In the end, the king had successfully asserted that the pope’s authority was trumped by God’s. He would take it a step further in 1533 by determining that the divine right of kings, who “never had any superior but God,”217 trumped popes as well. Henry was now convinced of his unique position as God’s anointed deputy on earth, believing that Supreme Headship was his birthright, and he expected others to believe it too.218 Henry wrote letters, issued proclamations and published works by himself and by others in support of this belief. In the writings of the prominent scholars of the time, particularly once the break with the Rome occurred, Henry was often referred to as Moses (law-giver and deliverer of his people from bondage), Paul (the spiritual counselor of his people), and above all David (chosen one of God and vanquisher of Goliath, here meaning Catholicism).219

Henry’s favorite medium to communicate his Supremacy was through art, which was again employed brilliantly to sell his policies. The modern world places brand image and brand recognition as key to commercial success and cultural and political authority.220 The origins of such ideas can be traced back to before the sixteenth century as the early modern period “marked a transition to a greater concern with identity and display, “particularly for monarchs.221 Sharpe identifies the first record of the word “recognition” in relation to a royal title in a statute dating to the time of Elizabeth I, signifying a shift in ideas about and representations of royal authority. Once again the Renaissance transformed mankind, as rulers became patrons of the arts that flourished in this period and also took keen new interest in their own visual representations. In this era royal portraiture emerged, with family and dynastic galleries popping up throughout the royal houses of Europe. Rulers strove to enhance their standing both at home and abroad, fashioning themselves as the heads of their newly emerging realms. As a result, the depiction “of their rule, their dynasty, and their person took on great import.”222 The newly emerging “technologies of representation,” through portraiture, coinage, woodwork, and engraving, became a concern vital to the princes of Europe. This in turn opened new avenues for success to artists as the courts of Europe provided new employment, prestige and markets for those who won the favor and renown of the rulers they served; in turn “a new breed of artists with international reputations attracted the attention of rulers in what soon became a highly competitive world of image and display that was characteristic of early modernity.”223 This was the arena in which Henry VIII ruled. No English monarch has established a more lasting visual (brand) recognition.224



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