Skip to content

August 6, 1540 – The French Ambassador’s Analysis of Henry VIII

Collected Political Correspondence of the French Ambassadors to England 1537-1542 (public domain via the University of Toronto)
Collected Political Correspondence of the French Ambassadors to England 1537-1542 (public domain via the University of Toronto)

This is a phenomenal letter, written by Charles de Marillac (the French Ambassador) to Anne de Montmorency (Grand Master of France, supervising the royal household and Francis I’s private service). Marillac had just written his official report to Francis detailing the political events that were taking place England – this was a more personal letter to a friend that cut to Henry’s character. And cut it does, providing an amazing analysis of Henry VIII’s “issues” as we would say today.

This is taken from Letters & Papers, so it is a synopsis of the letter itself. (You may be wondering how L&P got a copy – Marillac’s secretary was selling copies of the ciphered dispatches…a system Cromwell had put into place long before). The first two paragraphs are general grumbling, it really starts getting good in the third…

His letter to the King shall be his excuse for not dilating further upon this lamentable matter. The fine ordinance newly forged here, for judging men without hearing them or letting them know their accusation, is as unhappy in its result as wicked in its origin. Another has been added to it, by which the Estates have entirely transferred their authority to the King, whose sole opinion will henceforth have the force of an act of Parliament. Although formerly everyone condescended to his wishes, still there was some form of justice, but now will be only the King’s pleasure. Thus Parliament, so often prorogued and re-assembled in years past, has now been closed, and it is thought that for this reign there will be no meeting of estates, except that which is ordinary every year for the expedition of matters of justice.

Will not speak of the pamphlets and books which these bishops print daily, in which, to be found faithful and good servants in treating of true obedience, they permit their King to interpret, add to, take away, and make, more divine law than the apostles or their vicars and successors ever dared to attempt. They make of him not only a King to be obeyed, but an idol to be worshipped. Thus a climax of evils has arisen and all sorts of unhappiness are registered in England. And though Montmorency understands matters better than he can write, will, for once, state briefly what he has seen and can learn about this.

First, to commence with the head, this Prince seems tainted, among other vices, with three which in a King may be called plagues. The first is that he is so covetous that all the riches in the world would not satisfy him. Hence the ruin of the abbeys, spoil of all churches that had anything to take, suppression of the knights of St. John of Rhodes, from whom has been taken not only their ancient revenue, but the moveables which they had acquired which they have not been able to leave by will. Hence, too, the accusation of so many rich men, who, whether condemned or acquitted, are always plucked; and it is unlikely that he should pardon the living when he troubles even the dead, without fearing the offence to the religion of the world which reveres them as saints, witness St. Thomas of Canterbury, who, because his relics and bones were adorned with gold and jewels, has been declared traitor. Everything is good prize, and he does not reflect that to make himself rich he has impoverished his people, and does not gain in goods what he loses in renown. As it seemed difficult to attain his desires after withdrawing obedience from the Holy See, he got preachers and ministers to persuade the people that it was better to employ the Church revenue on hospitals, colleges, and other foundations tending to the public good than to fatten lazy and useless monks. Having under this pretext taken to himself what had been consecrated to God, when the same preachers and ministers exhorted him to fulfil his duty and remit it to better uses they have been condemned and burnt as heretics, as they said at their execution, to the scandal of everyone. And although they well deserved to be the end of that of which they had been the beginning, still, those who commanded them are not free from blame, for, if they showed repentance for what was done, they should restore what they have demolished; but they easily find a thousand ways to take things to themselves and not a single one to give them up.

Thence proceeds the second plague, distrust and fear. This King, knowing how many changes he has made, and what tragedies and scandals he has created, would fain keep in favor with everybody, but does not trust a single man, expecting to see them all offended, and he will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts his people. Hence every day edicts are published so sanguinary that with a thousand guards one would scarce be safe. Hence too it is that now with us, as affairs incline, he makes alliances which last as long as it makes for him to keep them.

The third plague, lightness and inconstancy, proceeds partly from the other two and partly from the nature of the nation, and has perverted the rights of religion, marriage, faith and promise, as softened wax can be altered to any form.

The subjects take example from the Prince, and the ministers seek only to undo each other to gain credit, and under colour of their master’s good each attends to his own. For all the fine words of which they are full, they will act only as necessity and interest compel them. Henceforward I will write things simply as they pass; the above is to let you know that I have found what you predicted. 

***

If you like my posts, you’ll love my book! Jane the Quene is now available in ebook and paperback on Amazon.Com (here are some easy links to  Amazon.ComAmazon.Co.UK and Amazon.Com.Au)!

Published inInteresting Letters and Speeches

2 Comments

  1. That was an excellent assessment of Henry VIII’s character. A nasty piece of work, brutal, grasping and aggressive. Thank you!

    • I do love letters – and this was a great one!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: