This begins the series of posts that will do quintessential leadership analyses on historically-significant people in leadership positions. Today’s post will look at the early  years of King Henry VIII of England.

And just to get the levity out of the way, while I was thinking about this and refreshing my memory on some of the details, I was amused by how many times the scene from the movie, Ghost, where Patrick Swayze sings “Henry the 8th” to Whoopi Goldberg until she agrees to help him, drifted in and out of the serious research I was doing. It’s a very funny scene, and obviously, quite effective from a cinematic standpoint.

But on to the the real Henry VIII and the quintessential leadership analysis of the first part of his life.

Henry VIII was born in 1491, one year before Christopher Columbus, under the patronage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, would begin the series of voyages that would change North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean islands forever…and not for the better.

He was the second son born to Henry VII, the first monarch in the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII came to throne after defeating Richard III (whose remains were recently discovered) in 1485 during the Battle at Bosworth Field. As a side note, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is The Life and Death of Richard the Third. It, however, must be read in the context of when it was written – during Elizabeth I’s reign – so the portrayals are very favorably skewed toward the Tudors and very harshly skewed against the Plantagenets, of which Richard III was the last ruler.

Being the second son of Henry VII, who by all accounts was the exact opposite of Henry VIII in every way except the obsessive paranoia that plagued both men (Henry VII seems to have always been very paranoid, while Henry VIII became more paranoid in the last half of his life), Henry VIII started life with the prospect of being a simply a prince, since his older brother, Arthur, was heir to the throne. 

In many ways, in hindsight, it’s because of Henry VIII’s birth order that his formal education included so little government and economics, consisting primarily of what we now call liberal arts: languages, literature, music, and art. That is also what probably gave him the air of being a “Renaissance Man.” Henry VIII was very intelligent and very gifted. He was an accomplished author and musician. He was also a gifted athlete. He had a passion for gambling as well. These were the things that Henry VIII enjoyed and loved to spend his time doing.

Great for a prince, probably (I think of Prince Charles of England now as an example), but awful for a king. And some of these interests and proclivities were what made him dangerous – and an unquintessential leader – as a king.

Henry VIII was also a devout Roman Catholic, very knowledgeable on liturgy and theology, and authored a best-selling book in Europe denouncing Martin Luther and supporting the church in Rome. Paradoxically, Henry VIII Henry VIII as a young manwas also very handsome as a young man and, even before his marriages, had begun to be a womanizer. Like so many things in Henry VIII’s life, his professed beliefs and the contradictory behavior showed an unquintessential leader at the very core. It also, and this became more apparent throughout his life, showed a complete lack of self-control – also an unquintessential leadership trait.

Henry VII arranged a marriage early on for Arthur with the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, Catherine of Aragon. The young couple married in 1501, but Arthur died five months after they were married.

After Authur’s death, Henry VII offered Henry VIII, who was 10 years old at the time, to Ferdinand and Isabella as a husband for Catherine, who was five years older, when he was old enough. These were political marriages and with Spain still at the top of game in Europe, Henry VII wanted to ensure peace and prosperity for England by a continue alliance with Ferdinand and Isabella. The logic was pragmatic: it’s unlikely, although not impossible, that a ruler will initiate a war against a country where one of his children is the spouse of the ruler.

Ferdinand and Isabella agreed.

When Henry VIII was eligible to marry Catherine at age 14, he rejected the marriage at the insistence of Henry VII, mainly because Isabella had died and Spain was not as politically strong nor as valuable to have as an ally. However, after Henry VII’s death, beginning a long series of unnecessary “in-your-face” decisions in opposition to his late father, Henry VIII married Catherine. It was a decision that would, in time, change the course of English and European history forever.

Henry VIII’s early reign showed many unquintessential leadership traits (although, some stayed the same throughout his reign, others replaced the younger ones as time went on). One that stayed the same was his method of dealing with people – all people – who were either inconvenient or got in his way. He simply got rid of them. The first two people he had executed were two of his father’s advisors, Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley.

Other unquintessential leadership traits became apparent in the way Henry VIII governed – or, more precisely, didn’t govern – early on. For some time after ascending to the throne, Henry VIII lived much the same life he lived as a prince, devoting most of his time to doing the things he enjoyed and following his passions. The unquintessential leadership trait that emerged was handing all the governing responsibilities over to a single person – Thomas Wolsey – who both quickly started consolidating his own power and making a lot of enemies. The fractious and dangerous environment of Henry VIII’s court began here. Henry, when he finally did decide to take complete control (another unquintessential leadership trait), used this to his advantage, encouraging and instigating the constant atmosphere of fear, intrigue, suspicion, and lies that led to death that characterize his reign. None of this was quintessential leadership.

He was a spendthrift all his life. His tastes were lavish, excessive, and his need for instant gratification quickly took the English coffers from the economically-stable position that Henry VII had left them in to a constant need for cash infusions throughout Henry VIII’s reign, which ended with him and England deeply in debt.

In part II of this look at Henry VIII, we’ll pick up at the point where his marriage to Catherine became inconvenient.

  1. edna million says:

    Really interesting post! I’d never thought of Henry VIII’s background as the second son being the reason he was so oddly (for his time, and for the king) artistic. But that makes so much sense. He would have had the freedom to focus on that instead of the usual ruler-stuff. The world would have been a very different place if he had stayed the second son.


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