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Shakespeare & Beyond

The education of Henry VIII

Excerpt: Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage That Shook Europe by John Guy and Julia Fox

Hunting the Falcon book cover
Hunting the Falcon book cover

“Thys Boke is Myne, Prince Henry” reads an inscription in Henry VIII’s schoolroom copy of Cicero’s writings, one of the books that will be on display in the Folger’s new exhibition halls when they open in 2024. The handwriting closely resembles that of his mother, Elizabeth, who had a strong influence over his early days.

How did Henry VIII’s childhood and education help shape him into the king he would become? The first chapter from a new book by historians John Guy and Julia Fox, excerpted below, offers some intriguing insights.

Published in October, Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Marriage That Shook Europe explores the wide-ranging impacts of the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but begins with a close look at their younger selves.

Prince Henry’s “boke”

Prince Henry’s “boke”

The boy who would become King Henry VIII wrote “Thys boke is myne Prince Henry” in this copy of Cicero’s writings from 1502.


Henry VIII was not born to be king. He was a second son, the spare, not the heir: it was his elder brother, Prince Arthur, who was meant to rule. But on the morning of an idyllic Midsummer’s Day in 1509 it would be Henry who, just a few days short of his eighteenth birthday, was crowned and anointed king of England in a ceremony of glittering pomp in Westminster Abbey. His wife of barely two weeks, the Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon, was crowned beside him. At that moment Henry – handsome, precocious, supremely gifted, with a round, beaming face and mop of ginger hair – seemed to be the king of dreams, of fairy tales, of chivalry, of honour, of justice. He certainly looked the part going by the measurements of his first suit of armour, standing at least 6 feet 1 inch tall but with no less than a 42-inch chest measurement and a waistline of 35 inches. The Venetian ambassador described him as ‘magnificent, generous and a great enemy of the French.’

The new king’s parents were Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and Elizabeth of York. A descendant of an illegitimate child of Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, by Katherine Swynford, Henry Tudor grew up in a hard school, forced into exile in 1471 during the turmoil and bloodshed of civil wars. These wars, better known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’, began in 1455 after Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, sought to oust the weak and ineffectual Henry VI. In 1460, Richard was slain in battle, but within a year his son was crowned Edward IV, only to lose his position in 1469 before recovering it two years later. With Edward on the offensive after his return to power, Henry Tudor, who had his own small claim to the throne, sought refuge in Brittany and France.

When in 1483 the sybaritic Edward suddenly died, his calculating brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, sprang into action, imprisoning his two young nephews the uncrowned Edward V and his younger brother Richard, now the Duke of York, in the Tower from where they shortly disappeared. Usurpers came cheap in the fifteenth century. When Gloucester made himself king as Richard III, Henry Tudor’s opportunity arrived. The result, with French aid, was the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, which left Henry triumphant and Richard lying dead upon the field. A York-Tudor marriage had been secretly mooted since the closing days of Edward IV’s reign. Now plans could be made in earnest. Edward’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, had better dynastic credentials than Henry: by marrying her three months after he was crowned king as Henry VII, he could recast himself as the true heir to the throne. As a chronicler remarked, the ‘red rose’ of Lancaster became the avenger of the ‘white rose’ of York.

Despite beginning as one of convenience, the marriage was soon to prove much deeper. The couple came to like, even love, each another. They were two very different personalities. Henry was astute, wary, prudent, indefatigable, ruthless: a tyrant in the making whom it was dangerous to cross. Elizabeth was as cultured, intelligent and sophisticated as she was beautiful. Affectionate, accessible, charming, a peacemaker, she brought harmony to the royal family and was the perfect counterpoise to her distant, dispassionate husband.

Prince Henry was born on 28 June 1491 at Greenwich, five years after his elder brother Arthur, and baptised in the adjacent Franciscan friary church. The palace was then little more than a Thameside manor house, but once rebuilt in brick with a suitably regal riverside range for feasting and entertainments, chapel, stables, library and tiltyard it would end up as the child’s favourite home. Henry scarcely knew Arthur, since long before he was fully weaned and learning to walk, his brother would be made Prince of Wales and installed in his own household. Queens and noblewomen alike sought to govern their children’s early years, but royal protocol dictated that the king alone had charge of the heir to the throne. Arthur, whose very name invoked the ancient prophecies of Merlin, left the royal nursery at the tender age of 3, when male tutors and servants were first assigned to him. Only Henry and his sisters Margaret, two years older, and Mary, five years younger, stayed in their mother’s care, attended by her gentlewomen, nurses and rockers. In this at least, the young Henry was blessed: he gained from Elizabeth of York the stability and affection he always ruefully remembered and would forever crave, and with her he was happy. Later in life, it would be said of him that ‘he frequents ladies’ company for mirth as a man nurtured among them.’

These years with his mother, whom he adored but who cosseted and spoiled him, shaped Henry psychologically. As late as age 12, he still lived in the royal nursery with its attached schoolroom in Eltham Palace, a short ride from Greenwich. His first tutor was the poet and satirist John Skelton, but it was his mother who taught him to read and write. His schoolroom copy of Cicero’s De officiis (‘On Duties’), printed in 1502, contains an ownership inscription in his bold, clear, highly distinctive handwriting which reads ‘Thys Boke is Myne, Prince Henry’, and the letter forms are almost identical to Elizabeth’s own.

Under Skelton’s tutelage, Henry studied French and Latin grammar, history and chronicles, poetry, and tales of chivalry and courtly love. This had been the model for princely education since 1468, when Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of York, married Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy. Famously, the fifteenth- century Burgundians wrote the rules for courtly etiquette and manners throughout Western Europe. Their court prized luxury, ritual, magnificent dress, art patronage and book and manuscript collecting; music, dancing and ceremonial display; hunting and outdoor sports. Urban centres such as Bruges, Ghent and Brussels boasted grand palaces designed to host tournaments, banquets, masques and ‘disguisings’. By the 1490s, Franco-Burgundian language and literature, dress styles, pageantry, art and interior decoration were as integral to English vernacular taste as Geoffrey Chaucer’s works.

From the book Hunting the Falcon: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the Marriage That Shook Europe by John Guy and Julia Fox. Copyright © 2023 by John Guy and Julia Fox. Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.