Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Question from Eva - Henry VIII's political philosophy


I am keen to get some opinions on Henry VIII's political philosophy. I find the man fascinating and have just read "The Prince" by Machiavelli for the first time. My impression is that the ideals in this book are certainly applicable to many facets of Henry VIII's reign, but having done some research (admittedly only online thus far) I am not sure I am convinced that Henry actually read this book and absorbed its advice. (I found a note that Cromwell spoke highly of it, but could not trace the source back to a letter or account. Has anyone come across this?)

On the other hand, I feel that the impact of Erasmus' work on Henry is clear. I would like to study more of the political theory that may have shaped Henry's reign, although the very question is tenuous. A book called "The Counter-Reformation Prince" by Robert Bireley came up in a search, and I have never heard of it before. Can anyone shed some light on it or point me in a different direction?

Thanks so much!


  1. Jasper Ridley, in his biography “Henry VIII”, makes two fleeting references to how Henry fits the Machiavellian bill, so to speak, and quotes A. F. Pollard who describes him as ‘Machiavelli’s Prince in action’ (Pollard, “Henry VIII” 1905; 429, 434, 439-40). Ridley also says it is not known whether Henry read “The Prince”, although, as you say, Cromwell thought highly of it. Apparently Lord Morley sent Henry a copy of the same author’s “History of Florence” and advised him to read it.
    I have had a look in David Starkey’s “Henry - Virtuous Prince” but he does not mention “The Prince” at all.

  2. Bireley's book addresses the various intellectual arguments against Machiavelli by prominent political writers of the period. ( I think the focus is chiefly writers of the much later 16th century through the early 17th century.)

    Henry comes up in reference to Cardinal Pole's campaign in exile against the king - Pole had certainly read Machiavelli (according to Thomas Mayer, an expert on Pole) and argued against the political message of the book in his attacks on Henry.

    Pole also claimed that Cromwell had introduced Machiavelli's book to England. (Pole's anecdote, detailing Cromwell's enthusiasm for Machiavelli, recalls an alleged 1528 conversation with Cromwell, published in 1539 as part of the preface to Pole's De Unitate. According to Patrick Coby, The Prince was not published until 1532, but circulated in manuscript form since its original composition in 1513.)

    Which might suggest Henry had read The Prince and was acting on its advice during the 1530s. Perhaps he read it on his own or Cromwell recommended it, much as Anne Boleyn recommended Tyndale's book Obedience of a Christian Man.

    Alternatively, it might suggest that after having seen Pole's attacks on him, Henry would then have been obliged to read Machiavelli to grasp the context. But this is speculation.

    I don't think there's a concrete answer as to whether Henry read the work or not - a list of his library might be helpful.

  3. James Carley states: "Morley's desire to use Cromwell as a means of access to the king is even more apparent in the copies of Machiaevelli's Istorie Fiorentine and Il Principe which he asked Cromwell to convey to Henry. Although the books are not known to have survived, the accompanying letter does".

    They may well re-surface like the recent manuscript in the National Library of Aberystwyth which is now believed to have come from Henry VII's library and depicts a young Henry VIII and his two sisters. (Check out On the Tudor Trail).

    Slightly off-topic, I did get to see the Gold Exhibition, Marilyn and it was massive. I think I was there for about 3 hours! I did see the locket ring but it was very dimly lit, with only the Elizabeth side really showing.

    What struck me was how large the actual ring was, I'm sure it would have been too large for Elizabeth with her long, thin fingers.

    They had lots of other Tudor items there, too including coins from the Mary Rose ship.

    I even got a lovely free gold book, to accompany the exhibition which was in a lovely gold bag!

    Now off to the Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum!


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